As transportation evolves, we all need to pay our fair share
A record number of us hit the roadways this past holiday season to visit family and friends, according to estimates from AAA, and among the roughly 105 million of us who traveled over the river and through the woods, a growing number did so by electric vehicle (EV).
An April 2019 report pegged the number of electric vehicles on U.S. roadways at 1.18 million, and while that accounts for less than one-half of one percent of the total vehicles on the road, the EV market is growing, and lawmakers in Washington have a record of propping up the industry.
But at just over a million EVs on the road, surely they can’t have that big of an impact on our transportation infrastructure, right?
The mechanism we use to pay for road and bridge repair is the fuel tax that feeds the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Right now, 18.4 cents per gallon of gas goes to the Highway Trust Fund, which in turn is used for transportation infrastructure repair.
But electric vehicles don’t use gasoline and therefore don’t pay the fuel tax. So, with over a million EVs on the roads – weighing an average of 24 percent heavier than traditional combustion vehicles – the wear and tear impact adds up faster than policymakers realize. They’re using the same transportation infrastructure, and using it harder, but they’re not helping to maintain it for future generations.
Unless the revenue policy is reimagined, heavier, more fuel-efficient vehicles will keep wearing down the roads and not paying into the federal maintenance fund.
The costs of neglecting our transportation infrastructure is high. The U.S. Department of Transportation classified 54,560 bridges as structurally deficient in 2017. And according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ on its report card that same year, failure to properly invest in our infrastructure could cost the U.S. $4 trillion in GDP and 2.5 million jobs by 2025.
To make matters worse, the Highway Trust Fund is routinely raided to pay for various other projects like local mass transit systems that have little to do with road repair. While mass transit is important, many from rural states argue that the 2.86 cents from the 18.4-cent gas tax that goes to mass transit projects should be spent on road repair, not the New York City subway system.
Just last year, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved what it described as the largest highway funding bill in history. And while that’s a step in the right direction, included in that bill was $1 billion in grants for EV charging infrastructure, as well as infrastructure for alternative fuel vehicles. There is a clear disconnect within Congress, as lawmakers fail to recognize the revenue shortfall in the making. In fact, with all good intentions, unless accompanied by new revenue sources, these actions exacerbate the funding issue.
But it’s not too late to turn things around. What’s needed are new, innovative ways to ensure that the Highway Trust Fund is fully funded and capable of tackling the infrastructure challenges that lie ahead.
While the gas tax is proving less reliable as a proxy for road use, many states are implementing annual road-use fees for drivers of electric vehicles. These fees in states as diverse as Hawaii, Ohio, and Alabama are designed to guarantee that those contributing wear and tear on state roadways are helping to pay for their maintenance. While no equivalent fee exists at the federal level, it’s an approach that would address the funding gap in a fair manner. Other options include protections against further raiding of the Highway Trust Fund, mileage-based taxes, tire taxes, increasing the federal gasoline tax, and tolls. Many of these are not politically palatable, but that makes finding a realistic, bipartisan solution all the more critical.
Solving the challenges we face with the Highway Trust Fund will not be easy. Americans are using our transportation infrastructure more than ever, and emerging technologies are changing how we travel. We need innovative solutions that adequately adjust with those changes in a timely manner so that our roads and bridges don’t deteriorate further, and future generations are able to use them for years to come.
Benjamin R. Dierker is the Director of Public Policy at the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure.